Film Review: Zero Bridge

This excellent debut film provides an insider’s view of life in Kashmir.

Tariq Tapa’s debut film, Zero Bridge, is set in Srinagar, a city in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The bridge is part of a main thoroughfare where inhabitants, like Dilawar (Mohamad Emran Tapa), Tapa’s protagonist, cross the Jhelum River to leave the city. Once on the Silk Route and now a provincial capital, Srinagar doubles in the film for the gate to Dante’s Inferno. Zero Bridge, in name and in the filmmaker’s imagination, echoes the inscription that so frightened the poet. It is the boundary at which hope is abandoned.

At first, Zero Bridge seems inspired by Italian neorealism—the actors are non-professionals, it was shot on location with a digital camera, and the characters are ordinary Kashmiris laboring to survive. Dilawar and his uncle Ali rely on the older man’s skill as a mason to carve out their meager existence. For extra cash, the 17-year-old cleans river boats, takes tourists on river tours, and commits petty crimes. Dilawar’s misery is palpable from the first frame of the film, and nothing, not even his nostalgic thoughts of his mother, rescues him from life in Srinagar where “we treat each other like dogs.” In his desperation, Dilawar deliberately ruins the life of a young woman, Bani, and Zero Bridge begins to resemble Robert Bresson’s l’Argent or Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses.

Tariq Tapa is an American of Kashmiri and Jewish descent who spent summers as a child in Indian-controlled Kashmir. His movie provides an unusual glimpse into Kashmiri life, but more than that it maps another place of in-betweeness. Like the geographical and psychological borders in Ghobadi’s films, which promise escape if they are surmounted, the bridge represents to Dilawar and Bani a chance to flee. In the end, Ghobadi’s protagonists, the Kurdish children in Drunken Horses or Turtles Can Fly, discover that traversing these boundaries never frees them from their long-implanted despair. Like Dilawar and Bani, they are pulled back, as if by fate, not always to the place itself but to the violence that so brutally marked their young lives.

Dilawar’s destiny was sealed after his adoptive mother abandoned him. Perhaps too young to understand the conditions under which he came under Ali’s protection, he still idolizes her, and is understandably rebellious and resentful of his uncle’s efforts to chain him to a laborer’s life. He charges his classmates money for doing their math homework and, through his pickpocketing skills, attempts to become an apprentice to a more established criminal. The latter effort lands him in jail. As Tapa slowly exposes Dilawar’s doleful existence, it seems that the boy is beyond the harsh if admirable actions of his uncle to reform him, and immune to the growing affection of Bani, the 28-year-old physics student who befriends him.

As a woman in a misogynist culture, she may glimpse in Dilawar a man young enough to be redeemed. Tapa suggests that Bani, wounded by Kashmiri customs early on, is blind to Dilawar’s pathos and also, in a symbolic way, to his theft of her passport, which robs her of deliverance from Srinagar. Soon, the depths of Dilawar’s spiritual poverty are revealed when he must choose between returning that passport to Bani or selling it in the hopes of accumulating enough money to get out of Kashmir.

Fate is as much a presence in Zero Bridge as it is in any of Bresson’s films. It is there in Tapa’s extreme close-ups, which ironically mock the intimacy such shots usually provide because they spring not from a wish to endear us to Dilawar, but rather with their unsteady, hand-held perspective to reflect the boy’s internal state. In a sense, there is no fixed place inside Dilawar that would explain him. In fact, his perpetual agitation prevents him from imagining the consequences of his petty crimes. Like the intentional passing of counterfeit money from one person to another in l’Argent, the stealing of Bani’s passport begins a chain of misery that will stretch on for years to come. If Tapa’s storytelling is sometimes unnecessarily abstract, his camera, bobbing like an object carried on an angry tide, yet menacingly still around Bani, speaks loudly of floundering, and of quiet desperation, and everything else that crushes the human soul.